This was originally written by Robert Ellis, the former owner of this site.
I have written elsewhere about the comforting experience of listening to my heart with a stethoscope. This morning I discovered that listening to a normal heartbeat while in atrial fibrillation may have the ability to restore normal sinus rhythm.
I’ve been under an incredible amount of stress lately, finishing up my fourth trimester of acupuncture college and facing the last couple of weeks of final exams. I had three tests yesterday, including a final exam in the afternoon. I wasn’t feeling particularly stressed out when I went out to lunch, but when I returned to school I felt a wave of anxiety and my heart started pounding. By the time I reached the classroom and sat down for my final exam, I could feel that I was in afib. My heart was leaping and flopping in my chest and my pulse had the characteristic irregular beat.
There was nothing for me to do but take my exam, but when it was over, my friend Nathan put a few needles in me. I have found acupuncture and Chinese herbs to be tremendously beneficial, but they haven’t been able to convert me to normal sinus rhythm when I’ve been having an episode. The needles did calm me down considerably and after a while I was able to drive home.
At home, I took some Suan Zao Ren, an herb that nourishes the heart and calms the spirit. It knocked me out and I was able to sleep, but when I woke up, my heart was still doing flips. This is very unusual for me. I don’t think I’ve ever had an episode that began in the afternoon. They almost always begin in the evening or in the middle of the night and resolve within six to eight hours. I suspected that this episode was triggered by stress—test anxiety—and that it would resolve when I had a chance to fully relax and calm down.
I got out of bed and took some magnesium. After some time, I broke down and took a diltiazem. I only realized later when it didn’t work that I had taken the time-release pill instead of the one I’m supposed to take in an emergency. At about two this morning, I woke up feeling desperate. I found one of my other diltiazem pills and took it and went back to bed. At about 4:30, I woke up again. The diltiazem should have converted me within an hour. I could take another pill, but I my heart rate already felt slow, if irregular, and I was afraid to take another one while I was sleeping in case my heart rate became dangerously slow.
Instead, I reached into my nightstand drawer and took out my stethoscope. I listened to my heart bouncing around in my chest like some crazed Beat poet tapping on some bongos. My wife was already awake and asked if there was anything she could do, so I asked her if I could listen to her heartbeat. It wasn’t easy finding the right position, but we finally curled up on our right sides and I reached around and cupped the stethoscope over her chest. I heard her slow, steady heartbeat loud and reassuring in my ears, even as I felt my own heart stumble and hesitate. We fell asleep like that.
When I woke up again, it was almost 6:00. I’d pulled the stethoscope off in my sleep. I felt my pulse at my carotid artery. It was normal. My heart ached, like any muscle that had been overworked, but it was beating normally. I counted to thirty just to make sure. It didn’t miss a beat.
I can’t express how relieved I am to be in normal sinus rhythm, but if you’re reading this, you probably already know that feeling. It may have been the diltiazem, it may have been just the passage of time. I can’t be sure that listening to my wife’s heartbeat was the reason I converted, but it seems very plausible to me that my heart became entrained to my wife’s normal heartbeat.
Entrainment is a process by which two different rhythms become synchronized. Christian Huygens, the physicist who coined the term in 1666, noticed that two pendulum clocks began swinging in the same rhythm. I see no reason why this same phenomenon wouldn’t apply to heartbeats.
I’m very keen to test this theory, but if I don’t have the opportunity to test it personally it will be just fine with me. I’d be happy not to suffer another episode. But I hope you’ll try it and report your experiences in the comments.
Here are some things to know:
You’ll need a stethoscope. No need to buy an expensive one. I bought one from Amazon for $10.95 that works just fine.
You’ll need a partner. It may seem odd to ask someone if you can curl up with them and listen to their heart for an hour or more, but it might just bring you closer together. Listening to a recording may also work.
You’ll need to find a good position. Sleeping on your right side is ideal. This relieves the pressure on your heart and makes your partner’s heart closer so you can easily reach around to hold the stethoscope to their chest.
You’ll need to find their heartbeat. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. You’ll hear different sounds at different areas, but it doesn’t really matter. You’re only concerned with the rhythm. The best place is probably just off-center, behind the breastbone and slightly to the left.
If you have the opportunity, please try this and let me know if it works for you. I’ll be buried in school books for the next couple of weeks, so I may be slow to respond, but I’m eager to hear if anyone can duplicate my experience.
2015 Update: This is a heartbeat track I found on YouTube that I’ve used a few times during some of my intense afib episodes. This track still isn’t ideal as the heartbeat is too fast but it’s the best track I could find for free online – especially at this length (it goes non stop for 12 hours!).